If you had asked me when I first moved to Daegu which upcoming event in the city I was most excited for, I probably would have said the Daegu Dalgubeol Lantern Festival. After seeing pictures of the lantern ceremony online, I knew there was no way I was going to miss it this year. The online photos all showed an incredible spectacle that looked just like the beautiful “I See the Light” scene in Disney’s Tangled. I’m a huge Disney geek, and Tangled is one of my favourite movies, so I was stoked to have a real-life Rapunzel experience of my own.
The first thing I had to do was to get my hands on a ticket to the festival. It’s basically impossible to buy one online, since they always sell out within, like, the first 30 seconds of being released. (And I’ve heard that the ticket website is only available in Korean anyway.) Luckily, there are always a limited number of tickets available to buy in-person on the day of the festival. They’re sold just outside the baseball stadium in Duryu Park, where the event is held. Ticket sales don’t open until 11:00 a.m., but I knew I would have to get there early if I wanted to be sure of getting a ticket.
Sure enough, when I arrived at the baseball stadium at 9:30, there were already almost a hundred people in line for tickets. I took my place in the queue, sat down on the curb, opened up the book that I’d brought with me to pass the time (Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which I cannot recommend highly enough), and prepared myself for a long but worthwhile wait.
By 11:30 I finally had a purple wristband on my arm that would admit me to the special section of the stadium for foreigners. (I think this new foreigner section must be a new addition to the festival because I’ve never heard of it before.) The price for a ticket was 10,000 won or 30,000 won for a group of four. Luckily for me, there was a group of seven people standing in line in front of me who needed one more person to make their party a multiple of four, so I joined with them to get the discount.
I still had several hours to pass before the lanterns would be released, so I headed to nearby Gwanmun Market and whiled away the time shopping for secondhand clothes. (Pro tip: Gwanmun Market is a paradise for thrift store lovers and bargain hunters like me.)
I arrived back at Duryu Park around 3:00 and headed for the baseball stadium. There were already lots of people there, picnicking with their friends on mats they had laid out in the bleachers. There was a ton of confusion among festival staff members as to which entrance foreigners with a purple wristband were supposed to go through, but I finally made it into the stadium shortly before 4:00. There were only a few other people in my section yet, so I was free to sit wherever I wanted.
After settling into my seat, I once again had nothing to do but wait and wait and wait, until darkness fell and the lanterns would be released. There were some traditional Korean performances on the stage to entertain the audience in the interval, but none of them were particularly riveting at the distance I was sitting from the stage.
By the time darkness had finally fallen, the impatience in the crowd was palpable. Nobody seemed to know exactly when they were supposed to release their lanterns, but everyone was clearly itching for the main event to begin. We were all cold and bored and tired of waiting. Lots of people decided to signal their impatience by letting their lanterns go early.
Finally, a little after 8:00p.m., the spectacle began. I’m not sure (or maybe I just don’t remember) what the signal was, but suddenly everyone in the crowd began to light their lanterns and release them into the air. The sky was soon filled with hundreds of shining, glittering orbs of light, dancing above our heads. It was truly one of the most magnificent sights I have ever beheld. And yes, it was just like that scene in Tangled, except instead of “I See the Light” there was another beautiful song playing that sounded like it was from some kind of opera. The music suited the event perfectly, and really heightened the emotional aspect of it.
If there was one disappointing thing about the event, it’s that it was over so quickly. I only had a couple of minutes to take as many photos and videos as I could before the lanterns went on their merry way into the stratosphere. Because of the short duration of the spectacle, I was doomed to commit one of the most common and most tragic of all tourist sins: experiencing an event almost entirely through one’s phone screen. I was so desperate to capture some decent photos and videos in the short time I had that I hardly looked away from my phone to actually pay attention to what was happening around me. I knew that I was going to do this, because I always do this (ugh), but I was still disappointed. Sigh.
After the lanterns had floated away, there were some fireworks over the stadium. They were nice enough but they also only lasted a minute or two, and I didn’t manage to capture any decent photos of them. There was a parade afterwards, too, but I didn’t stick around for it. I had had a very long day and was dying to just make dinner at home, curl up in bed, and stare at my phone for a while.
All in all, the Daegu Lantern Festival was an amazing experience, even though it required an entire day of waiting around for an event that only lasted a couple of minutes. I’m hoping to go again next year and to try to do a better job of actually experiencing the incredible spectacle happening around me, instead of just frantically snapping photos of it. Let’s see how well that works out…